It's not easy being a genius--especially a young one. We never know why Lewis's mother abandoned him on the steps of an orphanage, but after seeing what he can do as a 12 year old in this second all-CGI feature to come out of the new Disney Animation Studios, we suspect he might have spooked Mom by saying something like "coefficient" instead of "goo goo."
Certainly, it's what keeps little Lewis (voiced by Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry) from finding adoptive parents. Either he scares them away with excited talk about his inventions, or he unleashes one of them on his prospective new family and it somehow misfires.
Director Stephen J. Anderson said what drew him to this project was the fact that he too was an orphan, and he knew what Lewis was going through. He understood the boy's obsession with wanting to dredge up a memory of his birth mother so badly that he'd build a Rube Goldberg-looking machine that would help him search his mind and then display an image of his mother on the contraption's screen.
Lewis enters his machine in the orphanage's science fair, and just about blows up the entire school. That's not his worst problem, though. A villainous fellow known to us only as Bowler Hat Guy (and voiced by the director himself) who looks a bit like Snidely Whiplash and has possibly the worst-looking teeth in all of Toontown, comes from the future in a time-traveling spaceship specifically for the purpose of stealing that imperfect machine. Another time-traveling ship shows up, piloted by a 13-year-old boy from the future named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), and then, the adventure really starts.
Sort of. I had the pleasure of talking with the director for a DVD Town interview, and I confessed that I loved the first and last thirds of the film, but felt that the middle third was a bit of a muddle. I was so taken by Lewis and his poignant situation in the present that a part of me didn't want to vicariously board that spaceship with him and travel to the future.
Oh, the kind of futuristic landscape we get is fine, but I thought the filmmakers went a bit overboard on the zanies. It turns out, though, that THIS part of the film ends up being the most faithful to the children's picture book ("A Day with Wilbur Robinson," by William Joyce) that inspired the project. Anyway, the "father of the future" is a fellow named Cornelius Robinson, Wilbur's father. Wilbur left the family garage unlocked, which is how Bowler Hat Guy was able to steal one of the family's two time-travelers, and why Wilbur had to pursue him in the other. But now everyone's back in the future, and the whole point of this section is to show that there's an entire family of eccentrics who, like Lewis, think outside the box. While he's an outsider in search of a family in the present, here in the future Lewis HAS a family who's ready to let him become a permanent member.
While all this is going on, Bowler Hat Guy has also come "back to the future" (and yes, there are elements here that'll remind you of that film), and that invention of Lewis's looms important. Meanwhile, it's turning out that the villain is less menacing than the Bowler Hat with mechanical arms and legs that he wears (or which wears HIM), a thing called "Doris." Throw in too many zany characters to keep straight, and I suspect that the average kid will just fasten his or her seatbelt and ride along without really understanding everything that's going on in the second act. But Act Three brings an emotional level back to the script and less confusion, and the payoff at the end is strong enough that even adults will find themselves getting a bit of a shiver.
If only that middle weren't so full of characters pulling the script in different directions! As John pointed out in his review, "Meet the Robinsons" has such great, wholesome themes that you hate to say anything bad about it, but that muddle in the middle really muffles the Disney magic, and the filmmakers throw so much into that second third of the film that it feels like a "kitchen sink" approach to animation. The sum of the parts just doesn't add up to a cohesive whole. Will the kids like it? Yes. The CGI animation is great to look at. Just be prepared to do a little explaining when things start to get confusing.
Though this looks fine in HD, "Meet the Robinsons" has a deliberately soft look to it with a slightly yellowed and antiquely nostalgic pallor that predominates in the "present," while the future gets a little more "Rolie Polie Olie" brighter. Sharp and detailed as the picture is, because of a deliberate soft-focus background it's not going to be one of those that you pop in to impress the Joneses. The picture is great; it's just the director's choices that won't make this pop out at you the way some Blu-rays do. The 1080p picture is presented in 1.78:1, which fills out the screen on a 16x9" monitor.
The English PCM 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) uncompressed audio is superior, with great clarity and rich tones in both the high and low ranges. There's plenty of ambient sound and rear effects to keep the rear speakers involved, and a nice wide spread across the front speakers. Additional sound options are English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with those same options for subtitles.
In the spirit of those old Disney animated television lessons, there's a bonus feature on "Inventions that Shaped the World," which guides children through a brief history of inventions, touching on the major ones: the wheel, glass, the Guttenberg press, telescope, telephone, incandescent light bulb, motion picture projector, combustion engine, airplane, television, sliced bread (yes, this is done with humor), and ending with Walt Disney, inventor of the theme park and audio animatronics.
Six deleted scenes are included, each of them fairly extensive and presented in various stages of production, including rough drawings and full animation. There's nothing special here, but the kids eager for more Robinsons will enjoy them. "Inventing the Robinsons" is an above-average making-of feature that has perfect pacing (brisk) combined with basic, core information. The director makes an appearance, as do voice talents. Editing makes this one a treat to watch. Even the talking heads are briskly inserted.
Anderson's audio commentary is also better than average. He's honest and open, and almost persuades me to be kinder to that middle section. Almost. Rounding out the extras are two music videos ("Kids of the Future" and "Little Wonders") and two games. One of them is like the old ActiVision "Barnstorming" game, where you move a spaceship across a scrolling screen in order to dodge bubbles and shoot targets. The kids liked it, and I didn't too badly myself. The other game is a trivia game about the Robinson family. This one has you select the right family member from pictures, based on a single clue. I struck out, but the kids surprisingly got every one. So does this mean that only adults will think the family too much? It's a distinct possibility.
"Meet the Robinsons" is a true G film, with nothing I caught that parents would find offensive. It's as innocuous an animated film to come out of any studio for a while . . . and that's something laudable. So are the film's themes, which teach children to move forward, keep trying, persevere. It's also a good film for blended or non-traditional families to watch together, because the concept of "family" is really one of acceptance and a sense of belonging, biological or not. If only the middle of the film didn't misfire as badly as one of Lewis's inventions. Be patient, though, and you'll find a satisfying ending.